Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, New York.
It’s Friday night, just after 9pm, and the place is filling up. The sound engineer is setting up a microphone on the small, raised stage opposite a long, dark-wood bar. The back room is full of young Puerto Rican guys shouting Spanish, playing pool and drinking Tequila. It’s dark outside and the streets are getting busy.
With a wide-brimmed black hat, beard and thick, black pony-tail that falls down his back, a guy steps on the stage to sound-check. He plugs in an old Guild dreadnaught and strums a few chords, picks a few notes and nods to the engineer. No-one bats an eyelid – it’s just another bloke with a guitar.
When he clears his throat and starts to sing, however, all activity ceases. The guys at the bar turn around, the pool game stops and everyone comes out to see. People who were walking past the door, they stop and come inside. I have never seen anything like it. I think I just heard a pin drop. Everyone is transfixed by the voice.
The guy singing is Lee Tyler Post, and this is just the sound-check.
There’s a long and proud tradition of story-tellers, or ‘singer-songwriters’ in the USA, from Joe Hill, Dock Boggs, Son House, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers to John Prine, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Tupac Shakur, Bonnie Prince Billy and, of course, Bob Dylan. The craft can be traced back to Irish, English and Scottish folk songs, sea-shanties, medieval minstrels, maybe even to Native American and African story-songs. Whatever the historical origins, the Americans have made it their own. Just one listen to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (first released in 1952) can testify to that.
Lee Tyler Post is part of that chain, and though his tradition is ancient, his time is right now. He does between 150 and 200 shows a year, regularly travelling 25,000 miles, taking in New York, Austin, Nashville, Seattle, Los Angeles, Asheville, San Diego, Atlanta and Santa Fe. Touring is what he does. It’s his job. He used to work shifts at a steel yard, now he works on ‘The Road’.
A proper music venue – big stage, lights, curtains, monitors, the whole nine yards (as they say here). People are eating shrimp and crawfish at big wooden tables, watching a great band playing some ‘New Orleans’ Cajun-folk-Irish-dance stuff. Whatever it is, it’s brilliant. The sound is good and the drinks are cheap.
At around 10pm, without any introduction, Lee Tyler Post walks onstage, sits on a tall bar stool, plugs in the Guild and says “Hi. Thanks for coming” and performs one of the stand-out tracks from his album‘Emancipate’, called ‘Thunderclap’. If there’s one song that showcases his remarkable voice, this is it.
The San Diego Troubadour wrote, “…Post’s sound is as much Springsteen and Van Morrison as it is Otis Redding and Al Green: blue-collar heartland grit mixed with Motor City soul…”
From deep-river low and bar-room husky to pure high and flying, his voice is an instrument of beauty and this song is a killer. There were several hundred people in the audience and I don’t think a single one of them moved for the seven and a half minutes it took him to sing the hell out of it.
Afterwards I chatted to him and asked about his motivation for touring as much as he does:
“If you’re an artist, you’re an artist. It’s not a part-time deal, a hobby. Once you get on that horse, you gotta ride it ‘til the end. So quitting, or saying “man, I didn’t get signed, its brutal out here”, “nobody digs me, I better find something else to do”….it’s not in my nature to do that. It’s not about money, and damn sure not about fame. It’s who you are. If you can’t at least get ‘popular’ locally, you get odd jobs to survive…etc etc. I’m lucky enough that folks, for the most part, dig the music. But like anything, you do it long enough, you become better, smarter at the craft, find your own sound and rhythm. If you put yourself out there, people will find you.”
Our conversation was interrupted several times by people wanting to praise him for the set he’d just played. He was gracious, warm and grateful and I got the sense that people really like this guy and connect with him through his songs. People have actually got married to Lee Tyler Post songs.
I find his stance refreshing. At this moment in popular history, people seem so desperate to be a ‘celebrity’ that they will do pretty much anything to get on TV or YouTube. Young ‘Pop Stars’ are plucked off the street (or from Performing Arts schools) and given contracts, fame, celebrity, without having developed their talents or worked up to it. Lee Tyler Post doesn’t care about celebrity, he just wants to sing his songs and connect.
7th Avenue, New York.
Lee is waiting to do a live-broadcast radio gig, a singer-songwriter’s showcase. Tainted Blue Studios are at the top of a skyscraper. We are outside on the balcony, looking down on Times Square and out across Manhattan. Lee tells me a little about how he got started on this road.
He was driving to work one day, heard Bob Dylan singing ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” on the radio and, in an instant, something inside of him changed. He knew what he was meant to do. He had heard his calling. The next day, he bought a 12 string acoustic and began to teach himself to play and write his own songs. And 22 years later, Lee has never played a cover tune.
Before an invited audience, in the beautiful wooden studio, Lee is last to perform. Introduced by the MC as “a gypsy troubadour from Southern California” he plays three songs from ‘Emancipate’ – ‘Revisited’, ‘And We Danced’ and ‘Thunderclap’.
He looks like a Cherokee biker – an unusual look, even by New York standards, and he stands out amongst the pencil-skinny, shabby-chic audience. He doesn’t care what people are wearing in Paris this season – he wears what he wants. He may wear his favourite wide-brimmed hat if he feels like going ‘formal’, but that’s it. He’s not here to win a fashion award.
The applause is spontaneous, rapturous and loud. If he can move an audience in ice-cool Manhattan, he can move one anywhere. And move them he does. In the space of three songs, he has turned a room full of cynics into a crowd of romantics. No-one is immune. I look through the glass and even the engineers in the control room are nodding with eyebrows raised.
There were some A&R guys in the audience, and after Lee returned from a brief ‘meet & greet’, I asked him about his attitude towards The Music Industry and ‘Getting Signed’.
“Well, I was raised by blue collar parents, who taught me that if you wanted something, you work hard for it. Earn it. Nobody’s gonna hand it to you on a silver platter. As my Dad would say, ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is”. So right there, is the foundation of my mind set.”
“I’ve been offered deals along the way, but it’s always ‘great voice Lee, but you’re songs have no air-play quality. We can’t market you’ or ‘you’re not Rock, or Blues, or Country or Soul. But with the right producer we could pick the right songs for you to sing, get you more mainstream.’ Man, I haven’t spent 20 years writing and finding my sound for someone to change it so they can make money off me!’
“It’s a shame young singer songwriters or artists still think ‘getting signed’ is the end all. The ‘I’ve Made It’ status. Does being ‘signed’ validate your work? Does it make you good? Turning on the radio answers that question! No, it doesn’t.
I mean, I get it. I can’t afford to get my albums sounding the way I’d like them to, but that’s a small price to pay for having the freedom to do what I want. And with all the resources available to us today, that we have access to, anyone can carve out a nice little career. All it takes is hard work, integrity, faith and belief in yourself.
Early in my career, in Nashville, I saw ‘The Machine’ up close and personal. Man, it was like sharks in the water after blood. Everyone fighting for position, trying to get heard, seen by the right people. A lot of broken hearts and dreams man, let me tell ya.
I just see music as a sanctuary, something that is very sacred. And I guess at the core of my beliefs are, ‘how can I protect this passion of mine, and keep it as pure as possible?’
I was told long ago, ‘Find out what you love to do, then figure out how to make a living at it.’ And if you can do that, consider yourself the luckiest man alive. That’s the American Dream. It’s the journey, not the destination.”
In the studio control room, listening back to the recording of Lee’s performance, I notice how respectful the ultra-cool, Dracula-pale engineers and studio crew are towards him. This is in sharp contrast to the short thrift they gave to some of the more ‘in-your-face’ performers earlier. People are respectful and sincere because he is genuine. He is the real thing – an artist, doing what he does and doing it well. On his own terms. I’m not saying that he doesn’t perform, he does, but it’s not an act. It’s real. People can see that and respond accordingly.
Back in the van, we head out of New York to a motel close to New Jersey. Lee and his wife, Jackie, talk about the show, assessing his performance, song choice and reception. Like every artist I’ve ever met, Lee is his own harshest critic. He’s not happy with his performance of one of his songs. He is too hard on himself, in my opinion, but I bite my tongue. Jackie hears him out then is totally honest – “I’ve heard you sing it better, but, you know, it’s not always about technique.”
A nail has been struck firmly on the head. By the time he finished his set, he had that room tonight. Every single person. All the performers were really good, but only Lee Tyler Post won the audience. Not many people can do that. It’s a gift.
Fayetteville, North Carolina.
It is hot outside, well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I say a prayer of thanks to John Gorrie from Florida. He invented Air Con in 1842 and Lee has it in his van. The drive has been a long one and West Virginia seemed to go on for days. We are definitely not in New York anymore. Checked shirts, cowboy hats, Southern flags, big trucks, fried food and accents like golden syrup.
Tonight’s venue is ‘Paddy’s’, an Irish bar with strong military ties. Fort Bragg is in Fayetteville and is the home of The Airborne and US Special Forces. Just like every other gig so far, there is a large gathering of Lee Tyler Post followers. Lee and Jackie are greeted warmly like old friends, drinks are bought and the bar starts to fill up, split evenly between military personnel, college students and ordinary, ‘blue collar’ American music lovers. The bar owner comes over to thank Lee personally for making the journey and over-sees his soundcheck. By the time Lee goes on at 11pm, the bar is packed, buoyant and very, very noisy.
He starts the set with ‘Vacant’, which gets the crowd’s attention and follows it with ‘Miles From Home’, then slows it down a little with ‘When It’s Over’. The hot, humid weather seems to suit him, because his voice is particularly expressive and he is clearly enjoying himself.
During the second set, an ex-Marine friend, Bill, joins Lee on stage, playing fiddle for two songs, and the interplay between Lee’s fluid voice and the weaving violin is stunning.
As Lee climbs off the stage to raucous applause, it is announced that a young, local soldier has been killed in action earlier in the day. In a spontaneous move, Paddy, the bar owner, gets up on the stage, raises his glass and says the soldier’s name. Every single person in the place stands, holds two minutes of silence, then sings the National Anthem and salutes the fallen young man. It is hard to convey the raw emotion and sense of shared identity that held the place for the duration of that song, but it moved everyone, myself included. Lee and Jackie are quiet on the journey from the venue, deeply touched by it. Lee keeps shaking his head, “man, that was unreal. I was choked up. Serious.”
There are several things that I seem to hear at every gig – one of them is: ‘I love it when he plays the songs off ‘Emancipate’. From the first show in New York, all the way to Nashville and again here, in Fayetteville. People seem to really love that album.
‘Emancipate’ was recorded using only analogue equipment (a 1970 MCI), sparse arrangements and was engineered, mixed and produced by Lee himself. When we get back to our accommodation for the night (a huge, free-standing chalet on a fellow musician’s farm), I ask him about it.
“Emancipate was written while working 12 hour shifts on a assembly line, in a factory. Over the course of a year. Then recorded in 3 weeks, mixed and mastered and finished in about a month.
I wanted to put together a concept album. I won’t dive into what it all means, because it’s too personal, but that album was like setting a bird free from a cage. It’s saying, ‘if you hold out long enough, have faith, love will find you. It’ll all work out in the end’. I have a ‘gut’ feeling that no matter what else I do, this will always be people’s favorite album of mine.
It was also the first time that my sound and style got captured correctly. I felt comfortable behind a board now, and could make sure it was done exactly how I heard it in my head. I engineered, produced, and mixed it. I wanted it raw, honest, recorded on analogue tape, with all the warmth and fuzz. No pro tools, or automation. I wanted it flawed. It was my creation. I had no idea anyone would even like it. Seriously. When it was released, it was like it wasn’t. Then 2 yrs later, bam. People started digging it.
I have to add that my good friend Simeon helped me out a lot. He played lead guitar, percussion, djembe, bass. Couldn’t have done it without him.
Themes like Love, Hope, Despair, Betrayal, Redemption – they’re universal. I have one friend or fan who won’t buy any other album of mine. All she does is listen to Emancipate every day.
She walked up to me at a show one day and said “its true isn’t it? About the songs. It’s you and Jackie.”
I told her “it means whatever you think it does.”
She said “no, it’s about you guys. I know it.”
I’ve heard this a LOT over the years.”
Whites Creek, Tennessee.
‘Dead Crawfish, Live Music’ is the motto of the next venue. It’s a relaxed restaurant, with a homely feel. There are large wooden tables with red and white checked table cloths. Quilts and lobster-pots. Local, handmade cards and tee shirts in the corner by the door. It’s worn appearance belies a strong musical history. In the men’s room is a signed photo of Charlie Daniels, who also played here back in the day.
Prior to Lee’s set, there’s a performance by a 14 year-old fundamentalist Christian girl, who sings her own song about the Internet being an instrument of The Devil, and that ‘pen and paper work just fine for me’. I find it alarming, charming and thoroughly bizarre.
The place fills up with cowboys and music fans. The sun is long gone and the moon is full and bright. I meet more of Lee’s fans, or friends, as he calls them. They take up the first five tables. The lights go down and Lee sits on a tall bar stool, head down, face hidden by his black hat as he strums his Guild, the crowd clapping as they recognise the ominous chord progression to ‘Hurricane’. Once again, when he sings, even the old-timers at the bar turn to watch and listen.
He’s at it again – mesmerizing people. It really is extraordinary. Lee Tyler Post, when not performing on stage, is a quiet, respectful, slightly reserved man. Yet when he sings his songs, he is transformed. It’s a remarkable thing to witness.
A second thing that occurs at every show is the appearance of people of Native American descent. Lee himself is part Cherokee, and on the porch of a house in a place called Eden, we talk about how his heritage affects his life and music.
“Well, I have always related to Native American Spirituality. Felt that connection with the earth, its rhythm. What you give, or take from it, finding a balance, the meaning of it all. And in my own way, I’ve tried to live my life with a purpose, reflecting that. I hope it shines through in my music. I think the combination of being part Cherokee, and half Spanish, is why I feel at home on the road. Blending the Free Spirit and Romantic elements of me, together.”
The next day, this nomad caravan is off again, heading back towards New York. Amongst the bags, guitars, hats and bottles of water, I carve out a nice bed in the back, watching the country roll by. Before we leave ‘The South’ though, Lee has another gig.
The Bistro, Oakridge, NC
At the venue, the Air Con has broken. It is sauna humid. 107 degrees outside and hotter inside. The place is packed. You can’t move. The stage is at floor level, two monitors separating the performers from the audience. It’s up-close and personal. There are no A&R people here, just music-lovers, and some of them have travelled a long way to hear Lee Tyler Post. The stifling heat doesn’t put them off one bit. I sit in a corner, barefoot, eating ice cubes and drinking my body weight in Diet Coke.
The first performer plays some laid-back Country Blues, which sounds great and I see Lee nodding along, enjoying it too. Jackie is busy chatting to people and selling CDs.
Lee sells a lot of albums at gigs and spends a fair bit of time signing them and writing messages for people. I’ve seen 40 year old women turn into giggling schoolgirls and big, battered bikers struck dumb before him. Lee is always courteous and chats politely, answering questions and thanking people for their support. The only occasion I saw him behave differently was when a guy was rude and disrespectful to Jackie. Trust me – you do not want to fall out with Lee Tyler Post.
I notice that he excuses himself and finds a quiet place before he goes on stage, just to have some peace, warm up his voice and focus. Performers are the same the world over. That short time of solitude before going on is vital. There’s nothing ‘diva’ or precious about it – it is simply a part of the whole process.
During the second of Lee’s sets, he invites two local musicians to join him on the tiny stage, adding vocal harmonies and some lead guitar. It’s a nice moment and the enthusiastic, sweating crowd appreciate it. Despite the heat, not a single person leaves until Lee finishes the night with a stunning, soaring, 14 minute version of ‘Thunderclap’.
Back at the motel, I sit under a cold shower and dream of snow.
Greenwich Village, New York.
We are back in The Village again, on Bleecker Street, as Lee is playing a short set at The Bitter End. Across the street we find a little bar and restaurant with tables outside. The conversation inevitably turns to music, while we watch the Saturday night hookers go by on roller-skates and hear the buskers start to play. Couples walk by, loved-up and in their own little worlds.
I ask about Jackie, Lee’s wife, manager, muse and all-round stunning lady. It is the only time he becomes reticent and he chooses his words carefully:
“I met Jackie at a Christmas party. Became instant friends. Her love of piano, and hearing me sing that night, drew us together I think. Over the course of a few years, we became very close. Not every day you marry your best friend. And I mean best friend. She’d still be the first person I call, or hang out with, even if we just had remained good friends. We haven’t spent a night apart in 15 years. She’s a very kind and soulful person. An “old soul” you could say. She says the same about me, but I believe I got the better part of the deal.”
The Bitter End is small, dark, cool and shabby. I love it. The bar is busy so we take Lee’s guitars backstage. The back room is tiny, with a broken sofa and two chairs. The walls are covered in artist signatures and messages.
Everyone has played here – Chuck Berry, Joan Baez, Bo Diddley, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, Lady Gaga, Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott Heron, Nina Simone, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Lenny Bruce and Stevie Wonder. It has a certain amount of history.
The stage is bathed in orange light and the sound is superb. The quality of the acts tonight is high and Lee fits right in. He plays a stunning version of ‘Revisited’, another brilliant track from that album, ‘Emancipate’.
Earlier in the evening, I had asked him about that track:
“Well, ‘Revisited’, which has become very popular to some folks, was co-written with my good buddy Jeff Hightower. He wrote it for his wife and asked if I would sing it. Demo it for him, to pitch to Nashville. I listened to it, a bell went off in my head, and I kinda took it from him…ha-ha. I asked if I could rework it, change some words, chords etc.
He said “LTP, do whatever you want to it.“
Even though our versions of the song are very different, I would of never come up with what I did, had I not heard Jeff’s version. It’s the only time I have ever co-written a song with someone.”
Tonight is my last night. Ten days, nine gigs and three thousand miles have passed by in a flash. We go for pizza with some of Lee’s friends then head off to another motel. I check my emails because I asked people I met at the gigs to tell me why they like ‘Emancipate’.
Some of the replies are fascinating and beautiful:
“When I have a bad day I run to this album. “Thunderclap” is my drug of choice, but any song on the album will do nicely for the pain. Lee evokes such emotion in his songs that it’s almost unbelievable at times. How can one man breathe so much life into words on a piece of paper using (at times) just his voice and a guitar? I don’t know. He’s a marvel, that one. I’m proud to say that I’ve seen him live, and he’s the best live performer I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve seen Dylan.)” – Serena Matthews, Nashville, TN.
“Emancipate is just one of those albums you always take with you. Like ‘Blood On The Tracks’ or ‘Astral Weeks’. I like the fact that not everybody’s heard it. It’s my secret treasure. It’s a classic.” – Bob Keane, Raleigh, NC.
“I’ve never experienced so much heart & soul poured into lyrics. Listening to Lee and watching him perform Emancipate is electrifying and always has me wanting more – more heartfelt songs & more opportunities to listen to such an amazing talented singer/songwriter/performer. I know he’s truly one of a kind as I’ve never met anyone quite like Lee and for that I’m thankful and incredibly lucky”. – Tania Peguero, NC.
“You can feel that Lee ‘gets’ it when it comes to music. On ‘Emancipate’, he blends all the parts of who he is to awaken your soul. His music makes me feel like I’m in the middle of a wheat field with a soft wind blowing across to create that perfect sound. I feel honored to have shared the pen with Lee on ‘Revisited’ . That album reminds me of what it’s like to hear real music again.” – Jeff Hightower.
I watch a fuzzy TV and reflect on the journey. Lee is clearly on a quest. He is searching for something. It isn’t fame, fortune or some self-esteem validation from applause. It’s not drugs (Lee has been clean and sober for a long time) or sex (I haven’t met two people more committed to each other than Lee and Jackie). It’s something else. According to the man himself:
“All I’m in search of is being the best human being I can be. To look at myself honestly, try and correct things I know in my heart are wrong. Writing songs, touring, getting the stuff ‘out of the basement’ so to speak, is very liberating. Trying to Understand, learn, what it all means.
I love plugging into that ‘invisible socket’ live. When something spiritual is happening… its flowing through you. Knowing You’re not alone. I never feel closer to God then those moments. I live for them. I love this quote “You may tie the laces, but God gave you the boots.” I take nothing for granted, and credit for nothing. So I always give it my all. No matter what. Tomorrow is promised to no-one.
To me, The road is just a metaphor for ‘teacher.’ And I’m always at school!”
Most people have at least one discernable talent. I don’t care if it’s genetic, organic, divine or whatever – it seems to be true, in my experience of life. Lee Tyler Post’s talent is being able to connect with and move people through his extraordinary voice and song-writing skills. He seems to trigger a very spiritual and emotional response in people. I have seen it, felt it and know it to be true. I believe that he is a conduit, through which the divine passes when he performs. A middle-man of sorts. I think he is looking for the source of that power, and that is what compels him to keep going. I don’t think he has a choice.
Either that, or he just fucking loves being on the road.
JFK Airport, New York.
My Delta Airways flight is leaving shortly. We listen to some old Tom Waits albums on the way to JFK and in no time I’m at Departures and saying goodbye.
I have seen some amazing performances by an extremely charismatic and talented performer but more than that, I have made good friends with Lee and Jackie. The chance to go ‘on the road’ has been everything I hoped for and more. And like Lee says, “it’s the journey, not the destination”.
Copyright © 2012 William Henry Prince.